OOTY: CHARM­ING QUEEN OF THE NIL­GIRIS

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We pay scant at­ten­tion to the lit­tle jew­els in the Nil­giris in the heart of South In­dia, that in­nocu­ous hill range that con­nects the Eastern and Western ghats. My first trip to Ooty was a de­light­ful eye opener—an ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time!

The best ‘of­fi­cial’ sea­son for vis­it­ing Ooty is be­tween April and May which is the core sum­mer sea­son with flow­ers in full bloom at the Botan­i­cal Gar­dens and the an­nual flower show. Un­for­tu­nately, it does get quite crowded be­cause ev­ery­one de­scends on it. And to top it all, that is when all the ho­tels/re­sorts make a killing; prices are high com­pared to mid June and later, at the ad­vent of the rainy sea­son.

But then Ooty in the rainy sea­son is the place to be if you wish to com­mune with na­ture, re­fresh your lungs with the cool moun­tain breeze and build up an ap­petite walk­ing the steep hill slopes as of­ten as you can. If you are ad­e­quately pro­tected, you can re­ally en­joy the cold. I was trav­el­ling

from Hy­der­abad where the mer­cury had been touch­ing 44-45 de­grees in May in spite of the in­ter­mit­tent show­ers. So I packed some vests and leg­gings, be­sides the wind­cheater (with a hood) and an um­brella (which was not much help in the blus­ter­ing winds!). I was told that tem­per­a­tures were hov­er­ing be­tween 10 and 12 de­grees with rain. And be­lieve me – that is cold!

My flight from Hy­der­abad to Coim­bat­ore was com­fort­able and since my friend was wait­ing for me with his brand new Nis­san mi­cra, we set off on the 96 km drive to Ooty. The drive was beau­ti­ful and as we en­tered into the ghats roads, it started driz­zling – a fine spray mist came on and the tem­per­a­tures started drop­ping. I guess it is not easy for an in­ex­pe­ri­enced driver to ne­go­ti­ate the curves and bends of the hills – this stretch has some 14 hair­pin bends – but since I was not in the driv­ing seat, I was happy click­ing pic­tures and ad­mir­ing the sturdy Eu­ca­lyp­tus and Pines

on both sides. Any open patches were cov­ered with green tea bushes. It sure was a feast for sore eyes!

Ooty may be a bit hec­tic for some tastes, and the town cen­tre is a mess, but it doesn’t take long to get up into the qui­eter, greener ar­eas where tall pines rise above what could al­most be English coun­try lanes. Ooty, ‘the Queen of Hill Sta­tions’, mixes up In­dian bus­tle and Hindu tem­ples with lovely parks and gar­dens and charm­ing Raj-era bun­ga­lows, the lat­ter pro­vid­ing its most at­mo­spheric (and most ex­pen­sive) places to stay. The town was es­tab­lished by the Bri­tish in the early 19th cen­tury as the sum­mer head­quar­ters of the Madras gov­ern­ment, and mem­o­rably nick­named ‘Snooty Ooty’. De­vel­op­ment ploughed through a few decades ago, but some­how old Ooty sur­vives. You just have to walk a bit fur­ther out to find it. The jour­ney up here on the cel­e­brated minia­ture train is ro­man­tic and the scenery stun­ning. Even the road up from the plains is im­pres­sive. From April to June (the very busy ‘sea­son’) Ooty is a wel­come re­lief from the hot plains, and in the colder months (Oc­to­ber to March) you’ll need warm cloth­ing, which you can buy cheap here, as overnight tem­per­a­tures

oc­ca­sion­ally drop to 0°C. The train and bus sta­tions are at the west end of Ooty’s race­course, in al­most the low­est part of town. To their west is the lake, while the streets of the town snake up­wards all around. From the bus sta­tion it’s a 20-minute walk to Ooty’s com­mer­cial cen­tre, Char­ing Cross. Like Ko­daikanal, Ooty has an in­ter­na­tional school whose stu­dents can be seen around town.

Our ho­tel ap­peared to be the last cou­ple of build­ings up on a steep slope – there is an un­in­ter­rupted view of the moun­tains and the pine trees in the dis­tance. The clouds have not dis­si­pated and the mists from up on high are com­ing down with the gusty winds and slowly cov­er­ing the dis­tant pines – only the tops are now vis­i­ble like ghosts! My wind­cheater is on and it is cold! We walk down the steep slopes and have to strug­gle to come up! The restau­rant pro­vides us a de­cent din­ner and we are all set for our ex­plo­rations to­mor­row.

The Botan­i­cal Gar­dens of Ooty have a def­i­nite his­tory and a defin­ing pres­ence. Set up more than a 150 years ago, the ba­sic idea of set­ting up this gar­den was to sup­ply fresh veg­eta­bles to the lo­cal English res­i­dents. Soon, it be­came a well laid out gar­den with flow­ers and or­na­men­tal trees which en­cour­aged the res­i­dents to ‘take the air’ (to go out for a stroll).

For­tu­nately, the lo­cal gov­ern­ment has taken enough pains to keep the place clean and invit­ing so that more visi­tors come in. For me, the great­est at­trac­tions were the an­cient trees which have taken on some fan­tas­tic shapes over the years. The other im­pres­sive fac­tor is the se­ries of wash­rooms— ‘Swachh Bharat’ mak­ing an im­pact! The wash­rooms are not state of the art but they are clean and the all per­va­sive smell is not there!

On one of the many boards is men­tioned ‘Toda mundi’ which roughly trans­lates to ‘vil­lage of the To­das’ – a tribal group con­sid­ered to be the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of the Nil­giris. So we started walk­ing through the up­per reaches of the Botan­i­cal gar­dens in the hope of

get­ting to meet some of the orig­i­nal to­das. Un­for­tu­nately for us – but for­tu­nately for the to­das – there is only one toda hut there, kept as a sam­ple. The other homes are all brick and mor­tar with col­or­ful blue and pink painted outer walls.

We walked into one of the homes and met Muthu­valli, the ma­tri­arch who was sit­ting and wrap­ping wool around her knees. She agreed to wear her tribal shawl, which had been wo­ven by her. She made quite a pic­ture with her smoky grey eyes and long sil­ver locks and the stern straight look – she must have been quite a dom­i­nat­ing and im­pres­sive fig­ure in her hey­day! Her grown up daugh­ter who spoke a lit­tle Hindi and un­der­stood money ad­mit­ted that she never wore the tribal dress any­more even though her mother made the shawls by hand; they were sold to raise money for ev­ery­day liv­ing!

When you think of trib­als you think of ab­ject poverty. Not here – there were a cou­ple of scoot­ers and an old In­dica parked out­side the en­clo­sure!

We walked back through a com­fort­able path­way head­ing for the Ooty rail­way sta­tion. There we parked the car and got into the sta­tion. In­ci­den­tally, park­ing costs Rs50/- while a ticket on the toy train costs only Rs10! We are to go for a ride on the Nil­giri Moun­tain Rail­way which is more than a hun­dred years old and has a UNESCO Her­itage tag to it. It is the slow­est train in In­dia av­er­ag­ing 10 kmph. Af­ter cross­ing the Bha­vani River, it climbs Asia’s steep­est tracks and trav­els 40 kms through 208 curves, 16 tun­nels, and 250 bridges. Ku­dos to the state of Tamil Nadu and South­ern Rail­way for main­tain­ing this toy train—it seems to be a ma­jor tourist at­trac­tion be­cause right now the car­riage is chock a block with stand­ing room only.

There is one car­riage for Met­tupalayam and one for Conoor which we reach af­ter travers­ing some very beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral land­scapes.

I spot a hoard­ing which ad­ver­tises hand­made linen at a place called Erin Villa. We get into an auto. For Rs 200/- he drives us to this beau­ti­ful house cov­ered in ex­otic flow­ers of all kinds. We browse through the over­priced linen and re­turn to the bus stand to catch a bus back to Ooty.

So in one day I get a train ride, an auto ride and a bus ride – three means of trans­port which I have not used for

quite a while now! I love it! We go to Pankaj bho­janalaya for some home style veg­e­tar­ian food and find it is quite good!

The fi­nal day is our trip to Doddabetta peak which is the high­est moun­tain in the Nil­giri Hills at 2,637 me­tres (8,650 feet). There is a re­served for­est area around the peak. It is 9 km from Ooty, on the Oo­tyko­ta­giri Road. Af­ter a typ­i­cal south In­dian break­fast at Ad­yar Anand Bha­van we set course. The drive to Dod­abetta is an­other treat al­to­gether – the con­tin­u­ous driz­zle has added an­other di­men­sion to the forests on ei­ther side. The air is redo­lent with the smell of eu­ca­lyp­tus – it is as if some­one has sprayed some Vicks into the air! The win­dows of the car are down and we are both en­joy­ing the rain and the old Hindi film songs play­ing in the car.

Very soon we are at the ob­ser­va­tory at

Doddabetta. There is a very strong wind blow­ing and the mists have cov­ered the peaks. Climb­ing up the iron stairs of the ob­ser­va­tory, I feel I could eas­ily top­ple over with the gale force winds trip­ping me up! Like the oth­ers wait­ing to take a peep, I also stick my neck into the tele­scope to see if I can see the peak , but the mists make you feel as if you are look­ing at a wad of soft cot­ton wool – no vis­i­bil­ity at all! Krishnan then points out the three peaks which look sim­i­lar to ‘the three sis­ters’ of the Blue Moun­tains of Aus­tralia.

We head back to the city and park our­selves at the Lake and the boathouse, watch­ing peo­ple go for rides in cov­ered boats as the fine driz­zle has not abated. The pad­dle­boats lie aban­doned, while squeal­ing groups of teenagers and adults step into the boats and start out for the long ride around the lake. When we head back to the car, Krishnan points out four shops which are run by eu­nuchs (hi­jras), a spe­cial drive to em­power them and to take them away from beg­ging in the streets.

We go back to Ad­yar Anand Bha­van to try their tiffins – a generic name for snacks which could be served for break­fast or tea! We get a plate where we have karap­pam (also called pani­haram), both sweet and sa­vory, along with a co­conut chut­ney. We ask for an­other plate where we get a steamed modak and kozhukot­tai which is a steamed sa­vory with an­other round of co­conut chut­ney. Fi­nally we are to drive back to Coim­bat­ore , via Ko­ta­giri – an­other beau­ti­ful lit­tle spot nes­tled in the hills. To be hon­est I loved the place and I hope to come back again, soon.

Ooty hill sta­tion TEXT & SE­LECT PHOTOS: SHYAMOLA KHANNA

Ooty panorama

Ooty Lake

Nim­bo­stra­tus clouds in Welling­ton Val­ley in Ooty

Rolling green slopes of Ooty

Mist de­scends on Ooty

Ooty, a hon­ey­moon­ers par­adise

Ooty view­point

Road to Ooty

Fern Hill ho­tel, Ooty

Toda hut

Boats for hire on the lake

Botan­i­cal Gar­dens

Ooty cot­tage tent

Driv­ing to Ooty

Photo credit: Shyamola Khanna

Nil­giri Moun­tain Rail­way

Photo credit: Shyamola Khanna

Cat­tle be­ing herded across the road

Lo­cals car­ry­ing con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als

Woman sell­ing bas­kets

Muthu­valli, the ma­tri­arch

Ooty’s Bhawani lake

En­joy a boat ride on the re­splen­dent Ooty lake

Boats on the lake

Main street of Ooty

A lonely vis­i­tor in the Ooty Botan­i­cal Gar­den

Ooty’s race­course

Nee­dle Rock View­point

Ho­tel in Ooty

Ooty es­tate

Water­fall enroute

Vil­lage homes

St Stephens Church in Ooty

Horse rac­ing in Ooty

Photo credit: Shyamola Khanna

Bridge over the river

Nil­giri Train

Choco­late mu­seum

Green slopes of Ooty

Photo credit: Shyamola Khanna

Pykara wa­ter­falls

Ad­ven­ture-wed­ding in Ooty

Cragged hill peaks

Ooty cof­fee plan­ta­tion

Water­fall near Ooty

Misty lawn of the ho­tel

Ooty’s Tiger Hill

John Sul­li­van’s ar­ti­fi­cial lake, Na­tional Forests, the Western Catch­ment and the fas­ci­nat­ing life of the To­das add to the magic of Ooty

Green­leaves Ho­tel in Ooty

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